“NEW” Blues Capitol of the World?

February 22, 2012


Here in our area of the Upper South (Mid-Ohio Valley), we’re not always aware of the happenings in the Deep South. However if you’re a fan of the blues and the history of the blues, this could be of interest to you. For a long time there have been hopes and dreams to restore Farish Street in Jackson, MS to its former glory. Not merely just urban gentrification. But a street of blues & jazz clubs, recording studios, theaters, life and history.

Jackson, Mississippi was once home to a “major” African-American entertainment center. Located along Farish Street it was said to be 2nd only to Harlem, NY.
Growth of the Farish Street community began slowly in the 1870’s and really took off by the early 1900’s. It quickly became “the” African-American entertainment center of the entire South. The many restaurants, churches, retail stores, blues & jazz clubs drew crowds of people to Farish Street in its heyday. The Ritz Theater, a landmark on Farish was one of only two black owned theaters in the entire country at the time. Jackson State University before moving to its new location was located at the corner of Farish and Griffith Street. The neighborhood became a self-sufficient, middle-class black community that was at least partly result of the segregated society outside. However with the end of Jim Crow, by the 1960’s the Farish Street community fell into decline. Elder African-Americans who began businesses passed away and the younger generation began to move away. Today like many other inner-city areas it suffers from years of neglect.

Renovation to the area was first talked about in 1983. And for 30 years various groups argued over about what to do. Either planning to raze it or rebuild it. In the meantime the Farish Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Mississippi Blues Trail placed a marker for the Alamo Theater and another for Trumpet Records where ELMORE JAMES recorded “Dust My Broom.” But by 1996, it was also listed on the nation’s 11 most endangered historic places.
In the 1990’s the Jackson Redevelopment Authority hired Memphis-based Performa Entertainment, the developer behind Beale Street to manage the project. But the project for whatever reason stalled. In 2008 Watkins Development LLC bought them out and began construction. But its been painfully slow.
CEO David Watkins had been a longtime power player in Jackson. However even more so with his efforts to save the historic King Edward Hotel. The hotel had been closed for 40 years and was crumbling. In 2006 Watkins Partners, former Ole Miss/New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister and Historic Restoration Inc formed a partnership to restore the King Edward. It reopened in 2009 as Hilton Garden Inn – Jackson Downtown  located in the King Edward Hotel.

Simply put, the economy. The country is in a recession. Many urban redevelopment projects are sitting half finished. An investment group has been put together, but deadlines are constantly being pushed back.
In September 2010 it was announced that the “new” Subway Lounge, Cool Al’s and The Big Apple Inn would be open by November same year. But that didn’t happen. One year later Jackson’s Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes demanded an audit of where all the money has gone. Stokes asked, “is this some kind of black hole for money?” Developer Watkins says Stokes is misinformed. He believed Subway, Al’s and Big Apple were coming along, but then the economy tanked.
At a public presentation in October 2011 Watkins presented a list of tenants for the $100 million Entertainment District project. However $13 million is still needed to complete construction and businesses to open.

Since first researching this project seems we’ve had more than a few problems getting information. Generally things have been pretty quiet since last November. Perhaps due to the audit? This tends to cast suspicion over something that’s been on the drawing board for so long. With the exception of one phone call, the only information we’ve got is what anybody can find on the internet. Seems very few people ride the fence on the subject. Depending on what you read and who’s saying it, the Farish Street project is either moving along nicely or it’s dead in the water. With the later opinion coming from the general public who remains very skeptical about it. It’s certainly easy to understand why seeing how its now been discussed over 30 years. Many say the neighborhood remains a very bad area. Typical of urban decay, and that it can be outright dangerous to visit.
The one telephone conversation we had was with the Jackson Free Press. JFP seemed to agree that the single biggest problem has been the overall condition of the national economy. And that sooner or later this WILL improve and it WILL get done.
Those planning the renovation of Farish Street say they have no intention of creating the next Beale Street or the next Bourbon Street. Plans are for this to become this next FARISH STREET. Being a historic district, restoration is a very meticulous process. Developers get extensive approval for every brick moved and every beam erected.
Despite all the setbacks, Watkins says when completed there will be 12 clubs and restaurants in the first block of the district. And that he hopes the majority will open in 2012. Included are BB King’s Blues Club and a “reborn” Subway Lounge with the support of ZAC HARMON. And that the district WILL someday become “the blues capital of the world“.  A big statement indeed. But the state of Mississippi has made huge strides when it comes to blues tourism. This could become still another shining jewel in their “blues crown”. As fans of the music, blues travelers and history buffs we can only hope it happens sooner than later.
*see Watkins to finance Farish Street Clubs  video

Received some clarification on a couple items recently thanks to the Central Mississippi Blues Society.
David Watkins was hoping to open the new Subway Lounge and somehow it was originally attached to Zac Harmon’s name. However Jimmy King, the past owner and manager of the Subway owns the rights to the name. Zac Harmon has been working on a club with his own name attached that would not be the Subway. Watkins was challenged legally about using the Subway name and he can not do so unless he buys it from Jimmy King. So far that has not happened. Mr King is still toying with opening the Subway again on Farish, south of the King Edward Hotel.
F. Jones Corner is current club that is open on Farish and keeps the late night hours like the old Subway. Books “live” blues Thur, Fri and Sat nights starting at midnight ’til 4:00am.
Peaches Cafe is open and serving food at noon and night. Interested parties recently held a fundraiser on Farish for Peaches because they are having financial problems.
F. Jones and Peaches are 2 of the very few buildings still privately owned (not by David Watkins) in 2 blocks of Farish.

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